Flash Points

Inhale. Exhale. Whew.

Marisa Olson, “Assisted Living,” 2008. Performance still. Courtesy the Artist.

In the New York Times video Copenhagen 101, reporter Tom Zeller asks people in Times Square what they know about the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) in Copenhagen. You know how these things go—Americans are, for the most part, painfully unaware. And to tell you the truth, had Zeller approached me, I would have been as clueless as most of the folks he interviewed. Like them, I’m conscious of climate issues and try to do my part. Yet I hadn’t bothered to find out what was taking place during this critical 12-day forum with worldwide ramifications.

Upon reading more about the UNCCC, I realized not only how large and multifaceted the discourse (“climate change” and “global warming” are umbrella terms for a range of environmental and social problems), but also how scientific. To try and wrap my mind around the issues at hand, I attended two public forums: Global Warming: Artists on Climate Change at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and the New York City Food and Climate Summit (NYCFCS). I also chatted with artist Marisa Olson who was slated to participate in New Life Copenhagen, an art festival and social experiment organized to coincide with the UNCCC; it was in our conversation that some of the dots began to connect.

Olson was invited to Copenhagen by the artist-run community Wooloo.org to engage the “social architecture” of the UNCCC, and Wooloo’s corresponding hospitality art project. Working with a team of volunteers, they prearranged free stay for more than 3,000 activists and climate campaigners in the homes of local residents. I had hoped to get a feel for what was happening in Copenhagen from Olson. However, due to unforeseen circumstances she was unable to attend. (Her friends, The Yes Men, took her place.) Still, her upcoming performance in New York City, in addition to a few earlier works, responds to the natural world far beyond the UNCCC.

In February, Olson will present Whew Age at PS122, in which she’ll play a guru-type character dressed in “somewhat weird, neon, futuristic yoga clothes.” As her self-made relaxation videos play in the background, she will lead audiences through a series of relaxation techniques and visualization exercises: “Picture yourself next to a cool melting glacier.” Inhale. Exhale. Olson’s directives serve as a platform to talk about climate change — the relationship of the body to the air you breathe — as well as the role stress and anxiety, as some theorists suggest, play in our climate, and the power of positive thinking. “I don’t really think that people sitting down and meditating and saying ‘om’ for five minutes a day is going to fix things,” Olson says, “but it’s a way to have a conversation.”

Marisa Olson, “Black or White,” 2006. Video still, TRT 4:13. Courtesy the Artist.

In preparation for Whew Age, Olson has read extensively about holistic relaxation techniques and therapies, the early development of science as a discipline, and, coincidentally, studies that link human diets to Earth’s rising temperature. The latter was key to the NYCFCS held at New York University. In a session about hunger in local communities, a City Harvest representative suggested that if we (manufacturers and consumers) can shift the focus from trade and industry back to people and their well-being we can help our climate tremendously. This fundamental shift is at the heart of Whew Age — reframing the individual’s relationship to the environment.

As Olson continued to describe Whew Age, I thought back to Zeller in Times Square. Was Olson assuming her audience would be more informed than the average Joe about climate issues? “No, but that’s a good question,” she said. “What I’m assuming is that there is a massive general awareness of the fact that there’s a problem. And, yes, there are skeptics about that. But I think most people have been subject to green advertising campaigns. [My] undergrads are obsessed with this idea of ‘going green,’ but when I ask them what that means they don’t know. Not unlike organic food today, Olson suggests that what was once alternative thinking to better ourselves and our planet has become mainstream fashion (read, brand) rather than a genuine tactic for change. The artist says, “Everyone knows that we need to be worried, but there aren’t really proactive strategies … I have a lot of criticisms of the discourse of environmentalism and the way it gets framed. So much of it is about consumption…It’s just one product versus another.”

Marisa Olson, “Noise Pollution” installation, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

In 2007, Olson began to explore media consumption and discard in relationship to the environment with her performance video, Golden Oldies. In this piece, she tries to create dialogue between obsolete, or analog devices such as a CD boombox, child’s record player, VHS and cassette tapes. Olson writes, “Like the garbage that piles up as we upgrade our phones and computers, the detritus accumulated in these efforts gets blindly swept aside in this ultimately fruitless effort.” In her ongoing-project, Noise Pollution, she continues this investigation of “upgrade culture,” collecting discarded communication devices from the streets of her Brooklyn neighborhood. “I’m really interested in what people do with their iPod, boom box or old answering machine when they upgrade to new technologies, and [how] that garbage becomes kind of out of sight and out of mind,” says Olson. Using the metaphor of Fort Knox — taking something out of circulation to preserve its value — the artist sprays her finds with gold paint, and displays them in “junk heaps.” The piles are a way, she says, to think about commodity fetishism, or “cultural forces that compel us to make and buy new media, and what fall out that has for the environment.”

Marisa Olson, “Noise Pollution” installation, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

This tension between nostalgia for the old, or familiar, and desire for the new was, for me, the most intriguing point made in the artist talk at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where DJ Spooky (aka Paul Miller), Art21 artist Julie Mehretu, and ecological designer Mitchell Joachim discussed their divergent practices in relationship to climate change. In response to Joachim’s images of inflatable cars, portable wind-powered homes, and other far-out designs for a not-so-distant future, Mehretu suggested that human resistance to change might be one of the biggest challenges for our environment: How does one make sustainable designs and technologies so desirable that people see them as essentially as we have come to view iPods? How do you make people want to change from their private Hummer to the Zipcar model? Consumption in this context would seem a solution rather than a problem. I shared this with Olson and she responded, “Somehow, I feel like that’s just about people buying more cars and things and not really addressing the bigger issue…but [yet] it is! That’s the really paradoxical thing. This is about consumption. It is about the carbon footprint of producing these objects, and then the consumer demand for new objects. I guess that’s why I’m really pushing this idea of mindfulness in the meditation project [Whew Age]. I really want people to be aware of the big picture.”